Examples come quickly to mind when the subject of anti-Semitism and England arises. Shakespeare's motives in writing "The Merchant of Venice" remain a subject of healthy debate, but countless productions of "The Merchant of Venice" over the centuries made Shylock the crudest of Jewish villains. About the repulsiveness of Dickens's Fagin in "Oliver Twist" there can be no debate, though the author did try to make amends in later editions by removing some of the references to Fagin's Jewishness. And then there are the recent furors over T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism. The charges seem to have stuck to the American-born poet, all the more for his fervent embrace of a very traditional Englishness—as if something about the mother country made it more natural for his bigotry to thrive there.
Yet there is another tale to be told. In her admirable and provocative "The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, from Cromwell to Churchill," Gertrude Himmelfarb asks us to rethink the history of Jews in England. While paying deference to the massive, necessary scholarship on anti-Semitism, she argues that too little attention has been given to a different side of that history—to the influential writers and political thinkers who helped to promote "a favorable view of Jews" and how they helped make England "a model of liberality and civility."
Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Nearly four centuries later they were allowed back in as legal residents, though with myriad "disabilities" preventing full citizenship. It took an additional 200 years for these to be removed. Ms. Himmelfarb's account of such transformations involves many giants of political and intellectual history. Oliver Cromwell fought for the re-admission of Jews on religious grounds; England was, he claimed, "the only country where they could be taught religion in its purity." On the other hand, John Locke included Jews in his 1689 "Letter Concerning Toleration," which Ms. Himmelfarb calls a "bold affirmation of the principle of toleration—toleration for its own sake, not for a higher, religious end."